Monday, September 30, 2013

The Point of the Story

The scriptures referred to are 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31.

I have gone to Hell. Hell, Michigan, that is. It is an unincorporated town which has capitalized on its unfortunate name to sell merchandise. But though I can't find it on the internet, I swear it once had an attraction that featured tableaux of famous sinners in hell. My brother and I, having seen the billboards, pestered our parents until they stopped and reluctantly bought tickets. It wasn't much. Mannequins behind glass represented Pontius Pilate and other Biblical bad guys in hell. I remember the one with the rich man from today's gospel looking longingly at a ghostly hand with a single drop of water hanging from its index finger. It was the most impressive exhibit of an admittedly disappointing tourist trap.

I think we often draw out of this parable lessons that Jesus didn't intend. Such as trying to construct a spacial map of heaven and hell. I think Jesus has Abraham and the rich man within viewing and speaking distance of each other for storytelling reasons. If their locations were absolutely removed from each other, the crucial interaction between the two couldn't take place. I don't think Jesus is as concerned about constructing a realistic picture of the afterlife as he is making his point.

And what is his point? To discern that, we do need to map out the larger section of Luke's gospel in which we find this pericope.

In Chapter 15, the Pharisees are muttering about Jesus' company, which at this point is made up mainly of tax collectors and sinners. So Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the so-called prodigal son. The point of those is how much God and his kingdom rejoice over those who repent. In the prodigal son, Jesus introduces a righteous son, who is furious over his father's willingness to forgive. The righteous son is depicted as being faithful to the father, in contrast to the younger son. He is obviously a stand-in for the self-righteous Pharisees. But then Jesus seems to question whether they are really as faithful as they would like others to think. So he tells the story of the dishonest steward, who fiddles with the books when his master decides to fire him. The Pharisees instantly pick up on the subtext and mock Jesus. In response, Jesus says, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.” In other words, diminishing what people owe God in order to win friends is not acceptable. And Jesus follows this up by talking about how the least stroke of the Law is more permanent than heaven and earth. He singles out the lax divorce standards of his day.

Which brings us to our gospel passage. How does this thread of repentance and faithfulness to God's law manifest itself in this story?

Last Sunday, I quoted at length a passage from Deuteronomy in which God commands his people not to be stingy to their poor brothers and sisters. It actually says, “If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates of the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” (Deut 15:7) After painting a picture of the rich man's extravagant lifestyle, where does Jesus place poor sick Lazarus? At the man's gate! So the rich man is violating not just the spirit of God's law but a specific commandment. The result is that, unrepentant, the rich man goes to hell.

Remember, last Sunday we established that having wealth is not a sin, provided one has earned it through honest, hard work and is generous to others. It's this last condition that the rich man in the Jesus' parable has violated in a rather flagrant manner. He had to pass by and perhaps step over Lazarus every time he opened his gate. He didn't even give the poor man his leftovers. This guy is callous.

Why was he like this? People are motivated by 3 categories of emotions: their needs, their desires and their fears. It's quite possible that the man got rich simply trying to meet his needs. Or possibly it was his father, since the man has 5 brothers that are in the same situation. So this guy may have inherited his wealth. And he had more than he needed. So why wouldn't he share?

It could be the desire to simply have more. Some people can't give up even a small part of what they have because they have this pathological need to have more. It may be a competitive spirit. I have heard of millionaires who don't really need a bigger yacht but want one bigger than that of their neighbors or a rival. That's just greed and selfishness.

Some people have bought into the idea that more stuff means more happiness. Our whole marketing industry is built on this. They sell you stuff you don't need on the premise that you will be happier if you purchase it. But those who buy into this idea eventually run into the law of diminishing returns: the more stuff they get, the less kick they get out of it. After a while it is no longer new, no longer shiny and mysterious, and they have to get more stuff to get that rush again. (I think some people who marry very often are like that.) And some people are able to delude themselves for their whole lives with such an obsession. Others realize that this constant inflammation of desire is a fraudulent way to live and get disillusioned with accumulating material possessions. It can lead to repentance or it can lead to despair. Is that what happened to the rich man in the story? He should have died a great deal later than poor starving Lazarus. Did he kill himself out of disillusion and despair? (Although that level of detail is not really important to the point of the story.)

One last motivation for acquiring lots of money or possessions is fear. Some rich people started out quite poor and it is fear of ever being in that state again that drives them to succeed. The sad thing is that they can never relax and enjoy their wealth because of the nagging fear that it could all go away. Such fear is really a lack of trust in God. It is not believing that he will provide your needs. It is doubting his goodness and love.

Paul in our passage from 1 Timothy has learned to be content with the basics: food and clothing. He has seen how the frantic scrabbling for riches has derailed many lives. And he has learned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” That's a much better translation of the original Greek than the old King James version. It is “a” root, not “the” root, and it is “all kinds of evils,” not “all evil.” But while it may not be the cause of everything that's wrong with the world, it can certainly account for a lot of it. Money is necessary for buying what we need but if you fall in love with it, then your relationship to wealth and material goods becomes warped. It's easy to hoard but hard to give away what you love. 

We have people starving and living in poverty in this world, not because there is insufficient food or money, but because it is so unevenly distributed. It is because of the secular version of the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. For instance, it is the boards of directors and CEOs who determine that not only is their work more valuable than the people who actually turn out the products they sell or perform the services they offer but that it is hundreds of times more valuable. Specifically, the average CEO makes 273 times what the average worker makes. In 1965, it was only 20 times as much. The average pay for CEOs at the top 350 companies, including stock options, is $14 million. That means, if they worked 40 hours a week for 50 weeks with 2 weeks paid vacation, their hourly wage would be $6730.76 or more than $112 a minute. Makes you wonder why they balk at paying people more than $7.25, the current minimum wage. Or to put it in terms they understand, what they make every 3.8 seconds. I'm not saying that what they do isn't valuable but is what they do every 2 and a quarter hours worth as much as what a minimum wage employee does in a whole year? Because that's the equivalency.

Henry Ford decided to pay his workers enough that they could afford to buy the cars they made in his factories. A lot of poverty, at least in the industrialized parts of the world, could be alleviated if employers paid their employees enough to live on. It's not like we have CEOs moonlighting to put food on the table.

As we said last time, there are wealthy people, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and J.K. Rowling who are generous. But those who aren't generous are driven by selfish greed or a fearful distrust of God's goodness. Jesus doesn't specify what motivates the rich man in his parable. Because while I'm sure Jesus was telling this story partly as an illustration of his earlier statement that you cannot serve both God and money, that's really not the main point of this story. And I think, like the lurid picture of hell Jesus paints, we get so caught up in the politics of money that we don't pay attention to the moral of the story.

If it weren't for the last 4 verses of this passage, we might conclude that Jesus is just teaching us about the punishment for being an uncaring rich person. But the rich man is not so wrapped up in his agony that he doesn't think of others. Lazarus may not have meant anything to him in his earthly life, but the rich man does worry about his 5 brothers, whom he obviously thinks are as tightfisted as he was. So he asks that, if Lazarus can't bring him a drop of water, (remember: he never did anything for Lazarus), could he at least return to earth to warn his brothers? Notice that Abraham doesn't say that Lazarus couldn't, just that, as good Jews, they should hear regularly the teachings of Moses and the prophets, with all of their commandments to help the poor.

The rich man knows his brothers only too well. God's word won't move them to change their self-indulgent and uncharitable lifestyles. But if Lazarus came back from the dead, they would repent. Notice anything telling about this? Apparently his brothers would recognize Lazarus as someone they knew who had died. That means they also had passed the beggar by without doing anything for his hunger or his sores. The rich man is right. They are going to join him if they don't turn to God.

And that leads us to our moral. Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Jesus took the thread he'd started on repentance, on how wealth corrupts and leads to unfaithfulness to God and brought it around to the main point: resistance to repentance even in the face of resurrection.

All of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell of how Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, from the dead. In addition Luke tells us of how Jesus raised the son of widow of Nain from the dead. Wouldn't you think that would cause any clear-thinking person, including Pharisees, to accept what Jesus said and did as coming from God? You want to say “Yes.” But did it? No. In fact, Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead was the tipping point in the plot against Jesus. Rather than saying, “He is from God,” his enemies said with dismay, “Everyone is going to believe in him!” But not them! They were were more concerned over their position and their relationship with Rome than with the obvious implications of a man who raises the dead and speaks for God.

How could this be? Actually, scientists have discovered it is very hard to change people's minds even when they are faced with evidence that undercuts their belief system. In studies they found that people nitpick news reports and scientific studies that contradict deeply-held beliefs, looking for exceptions and flaws. And if they find just one, no matter how tiny or irrelevant to the main thrust of the argument, they will seize upon it as sufficient reason to disbelieve the whole lot. They will even lose the ability to do basic math if, say, shown charts and figures that disprove their beliefs.

Think of the folks who still say President Kennedy was not shot by Oswald despite all the scientific recreations that showed no need for a second shooter and even that a bullet fired through one body will tumble in flight causing the odd trajectory that also wounded Governor Connelly. Think of the people who believe that commercial jets alone did not bring down the Twin Towers, despite all the forensic and engineering evidence that they did. Think of all the people who think Jesus never existed, despite all the documentary and historical evidence, accepted by every reputable historian, that he did.

Classicist Michael Grant wrote a book about the gospels and when he got to the resurrection of Jesus, he said as a historian he could not treat it as he would any other event in Jesus' life. And yet he admitted that it was difficult if not impossible to understand the change in the disciples and the phenomenal growth of the early church without the resurrection being real.

Jesus knew that even his resurrection would not convince his most hardened critics, those who could not be objective, nor listen to the evidence. (Perhaps that why he rather cheekily names the proposed resurrectee in the parable after the friend he raised from the dead.) People will believe what they want to believe, especially when changing their position would be inconvenient or embarrassing. The cost is just too high for most people. Sir Anthony Flew, the renowned atheist philosopher, was viciously attacked by his former admirers when he changed his mind on the existence of God. When C.S. Lewis gave up his faith in atheism, admitted that God was God and prayed, he described himself as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." Paul not only gained enemies when he turned from persecutor of the church to its foremost missionary, but it took a while for other Christians to trust him. There is a cost to turning your thinking and life around. It is the rare individual who can do it.

But Jesus wasn't aiming for the average person who has made up his mind and doesn't want any inconvenient facts to confuse him. He was aiming for the open-minded, the person who is willing to examine his pre-conceptions of the world, the person who can be persuaded by the moral truth found in the Bible, the person who knows he needs to change the way he is living and who would be prepared to follow Jesus even before hearing of his resurrection.

Jesus' resurrection changed the people who knew him and those they encountered who were open to the good news. The authorities who had Jesus killed, though they could not produce his body and thus quash the story of his resurrection, did not change their minds. It would have been political suicide for Pilate or even Caiaphas the high priest to admit to the public that they were so wrong as to condemn and crucify the Messiah--assuming they could even admit such a thing to themselves. In fact, it would take 300 years before any governor or emperor would be brave enough to declare himself a Christian. And even then they tried to make their “Lord” serve the state's agenda.

People's needs, desires and fears can motivate them to change. They can also motivate them to stay the same, when change costs too much and scares them too badly. They didn't crucify Jesus for being a supporter of the status quo. And when he rose, those who had too much invested in the political, religious and economic status quo, tried to ignore it. They went on as if nothing happened. Because if they didn't believe Moses and the prophets they wouldn't be convinced even if someone rose from the dead.

Jesus knew this. He knew not everyone would come to him, just as he knew that not everyone who said they would follow him would give up their other masters, whether they were their desires for wealth or popularity or power or to be safe. Those are most of humanity's main desires. And the last, “to be safe,” points to our greatest fears: pain and death. Following Jesus is not safe. Never has been. Jesus said, “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Because if you carry your cross, it keeps your mind on the essentials, the point of the story, of our story, of history itself: that God is love, love expressed concretely, self-sacrificial love. The point of our cross is that it reminds that this is how we must live our lives. It is a reminder that one day we will die. But it is also a reminder that death is not the end of the story. It is in fact the prologue to a new story, the story of a new life in a new body in a glorious new creation where there is no pain or death or mourning or crying, for God will wipe away every tear and he who is Love Incarnate will be with us forever.   

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